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A Skeptic’s Guide to Feng Shui

A journey to spiritual awakening — without ever leaving the house

By Larry Carlat

The first thing you should know about me is that I don’t believe in any of that woo-woo, mumbo-jumbo, spiritual crap. And that goes double for organized religion. The last time I was in a synagogue was more than 40 years ago, when I was bar mitzvahed.
The second thing you should know is also my big secret: I’d really like to believe.
When I was young, I believed in all kinds of stuff. God, love, magic — whatever you were selling, I was buying. But later I turned into a cynic. Brutal disappointments convinced me there is no God, I divorced after 25 years of love and marriage, and magic turned out to be a bunch of stupid card tricks.
The thing is, when you get to be a certain age you begin to see the world the way it really is rather than the way you imagined it would be. Along with that realization comes the inevitable thunder of time running out, tick-freaking-tock, which for us non-believers is the scariest proposition of all. “My relationship with death remains the same," said Woody Allen. "I'm strongly against it.”
Which is where that big-secret part comes in.

(MORE: Aging as a Spiritual Practice)

Recently it occurred to me that I had dismissed spirituality without really knowing anything about it. I found it easier to make a joke about, say, feng shui — the ancient Chinese blend of spirituality and home decorating — than to spend any time actually learning about it. This easy path has led me right down the road to nowhere. In fact, my girlfriend and I had a running joke about how she’s always asking the universe for things and the universe usually complies — while continuing to ignore my existence.

Opening the Door to Feng Shui
Determined to be heard, and to see if faith in my faithless world was even possible, I googled “feng shui manhattan.” And that’s how Laura Cerrano came into my life.
Laura is a feng shui consultant who lives in Farmingdale, New York. When we spoke on the phone, she said she’d learned everything she knows from her mother, Carole, who passed away two years ago. I told her about my skeptic’s journey and how I wanted to open my mind to all kinds of spiritual teachings and alternative healing, and Laura readily agreed to be my guide. My idea of feng shui, I explained, was fairly simple: She would come over to my apartment in Brooklyn, rearrange my furniture, and then I’d win the Powerball jackpot and marry Penelope Cruz.
“I’m pretty sure Penelope Cruz is already married,” Laura said. “And just placing objects won’t change things. You have to change your thoughts and take emotional, mental and physical action.”
Laura gave me one task to carry out before her visit. I was to buy 18 red envelopes (I feel bad for those lonely Hallmark cards now missing their mate in my local Rite Aid) and fill them with “my intentions” — written statements specifying what I want out of life, what I’m thankful for and what I’d like to change. The idea was a combination of giving thanks, that lame The Secret book and ordering room service from the universe.
Here’s some of what I wrote:
I’d like to stay healthy enough to play tennis until I’m a very, very old man.
I want my sons to stay healthy, be successful and enjoy what they do for a living.
I’d like to have enough money to do the things I’ve always wanted to do — like travel around the world.
I’d like to be with a woman who loves me for who I am and for me to love her the same way.
I’d like to remain friends with my ex-wife.
I’d like to wake up in the morning and feel excited about the day.
If feng shui can get the universe to cough up any of these things, then count me the hell in.
Go With the Flow

During our initial consultation, Laura explained that feng shui, which translates as “wind-water,” is a 5,000-year-old Chinese art (and science) that aims to align you in a balanced and harmonious way with the energies of where you live and work. I paid close attention. Oh, did I happen to mention that Laura is young and beautiful?
I told her about my life, my kids, my girlfriend, my job and my cynicism about most things, including what she does for a living. I told her that I feel stuck and can’t seem to make any real change.
“Once you put some simple feng shui methods to work and infuse the changes you make with intention,” she said calmly, not unlike David Carradine in Kung Fu, “you will let go and feng shui will take off with a synchronicity of its own.”
As we toured my apartment, Laura noted that it had an interesting flow of energy. She took photos of each room and commented on how neat it was, which apparently plays right in to the discipline's emphasis on de-cluttering and detoxing.

(MORE: Wabi-Sabi: A Design Aesthetic That Honors the Imperfections of Age)
Then we sat down to discuss the bagua, a sort of treasure map for your life that addresses eight key areas such as relationships, health, wealth and career. Laura told me feng shui’s five elements — fire, earth, metal, water, wood — were manifestations of chi or “universal energy.” Each element is associated with a particular accent color, and it’s important to have a balance of all five in your home.
I smiled politely and nodded along.
For the next three hours, Laura schooled me in the methods of feng shui, and made countless suggestions — called “cures” — for every nook and cranny in my apartment. She recommended hanging bells from my front door to “ring in the money” and crystals in my bathroom to deflect “miscommunication of energy.” Apparently, the bathroom is a major drain on wealth and health, and it’s important to always keep the door closed, to say nothing of the seat down.
She made a few observations, however, that meant a lot to me. For instance, I have photographs of my two sons hanging all over my place, and Laura noticed how they’re not smiling in any of them. I had always thought they were beautiful shots and a little arty.
“These photos are for your own peace of mind and for when your sons come to visit,” she said. “If you change them, they’ll see themselves not looking sad, and this will help you all reconnect with happy moments.”
(MORE: For the Sake of the Kids)


She then pointed to an antique schoolhouse clock hanging on my living room wall. “Feng shui isn’t too keen on clocks,” she noted. “Especially ones that don’t work.” She saw mine as a symbol of my feeling stuck, and I have to admit that gave me chills.
Laura urged me to pay attention to the smallest things and to be aware of the energy that they carry. She picked up a tiny curio with my wedding picture that was tucked away in a corner on a miniature shelf in the living room.
“How does it make you feel? Does it bother you to see it every time you walk through the front door? Has your girlfriend said anything about it?” she asked. “If you’ve ended or are in the process of ending a relationship, it’s important to let go of objects associated with the past.”
Time to Clear the Air

Before Laura split, she said we needed to perform a "space clearing" or "house blessing." This meant combining my personal intentions (the stuff in the red envelopes) with her intentions for the consultation. She reminded me once more that nothing would change if I didn’t take physical actions. She took the first one, burning a stick of sage, which is used to clear out negative emotions and energy.
“Space clearings always bring the truth to the surface," she said, quoting her mom. “While at the same time, when the sage burns, the smoke carries your true intentions to the universe.”
She then chanted what she called “the six true words” as she walked around my apartment. Every time she finished a blessing, it was my job to make a chime with two small steel bells, to enhance the blessing and send intentions to the universe. By now the universe, I thought, must be sick to death of hearing from me.
A few days later, Laura emailed a report (30 pages long!) filled with detailed suggestions. I hung bells on a nine-inch red ribbon from my doorknobs as well as 30mm Swarovski crystals in the living room and bathroom windows. I replaced the arty old photos of my kids with new, smiley-faced ones. I removed my wedding photo from the shelf. I went to a clockmaker and he got my clock working for the first time ever. And I have to tell you, its soothing tick-tock has become the heartbeat of my apartment.
And then…
Laura told me it might take a few weeks before I noticed any change. She emphasized that feng shui is 80 percent intention, 20 percent physical action. I was just hoping that it wasn’t 100 percent nonsense.
A few weeks passed. Then one morning I got a call from my ex-wife, who said she just got two offers on the house we had once shared. It had been on the market for months without a single bite.
That same afternoon, my younger son texted to tell me he’d landed a gig as an intern at a hip-hop magazine.
And a few days later, I broke up with my girlfriend.
Coincidence? Maybe.
The only thing I know for sure is that the universe works in funny ways.

Larry Carlat is the managing editor of Next Avenue. Laura Cerrano is a certified feng shui consultant and the founder of Feng Shui Manhattan & Long Island.

Larry Carlat served as managing editor for Next Avenue. He is a writer and editor who lives in Venice, Calif. Read More
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